A Rainy — and Inspiring — Morning in a Township

June 10, 2013 9:02 am

Tsoga Exterior

One of the most jarring things about adjusting to life as an American in South Africa is getting used to the intense economic and racial distinctions that are an intrinsic part of society here. I’ll stroll through some neighborhoods and feel convinced I’m in a posh European capital; but then I drive a few miles in a different direction and am instantly reminded I’m actually in the third world. The conditions here are at a level that don’t even compare to most impoverished parts of America. In a country like India, adiposity where squalid slums back up against glittering malls, you can’t be oblivious to the have-nots living side by side with the haves, but in a place like Cape Town it’s too often too easy to avoid confronting the reality that so much of the country lives in. And bridging the gap often seems like an insurmountable challenge, so many prefer to simply avoid facing the facts.

But not people like Hawa Tayob. She’s the program director of ELF Montessori, a nonprofit center that trains teachers to exemplify the Montessori educational philosophy with their students in their classrooms, and she’s also passionate about outreach. “The challenges are too many and too big, and our work is a drop in the ocean. But if we can get one child out of the township, we’ll have achieved something,” she says. With that goal in mind, ELF helps coordinate a teacher training program in the townships. When she asked me a few weeks ago if I’d like to drop in on one of their workshops in the Samora Machel township near Cape Town, I jumped at the chance.

I’ve been to a township once before when I was a tourist, on a whirlwind visit to Khayelitsha to visit a makeshift soup kitchen. So while I wasn’t shocked by what I saw, it was an entirely different experience coming back now as a South African resident, to learn more about the problems affecting my newly adopted nation.

The drive out to Samora Machel is a study in the lingering effects of apartheid. To recap just a part of what happened during that dark period in South Africa’s history, for the uninitiated: people were forcibly relocated to far-flung areas, based on their race; Whites got the best and most central neighborhoods, followed by Coloreds and Indians, and Blacks were relegated to townships on the far reaches of town with the fewest resources available.

(Side note: “colored” really is how a particular race of people of mixed descent identify themselves in South Africa, and it’s not an offensive term unlike in the States — that has definitely taken me some getting used to! The first time someone told me they were colored, I was aghast: “What? You can’t say that!” I said in disbelief. Turns out you can. Who knew.)

And as much as efforts are being made to reverse the effects of apartheid in the 20 years since it ended, many of these distinctions still persist. First we drove through the upscale former white suburbs, with their leafy avenues and charming gated houses. Then we approached neighborhoods that still predominantly house Indians and Coloreds, which are less shiny and more composed of characterless cement blocks of businesses and buildings, with some nicer pockets here and there.

Then as we approached Phillippi and the Samora Machel township, things definitely took a turn for the worse: rows and rows of fragile tin shacks barely hold their own against the driving winter rain, and are dotted with beat-up cars and piles of trash strewn about and rivers of mud streaming through. Women take their washing to a communal tap, and shabby porta-potties dot the landscape. After a point the tarred roads came to an end, and all we saw ahead was an endless stretch of dilapidated houses bordering massive puddles. The gray skies somehow manage to look ever grayer in the townships.

A staggering 25 percent of the South African population is unemployed, and you can see that in full force in the townships, where hundreds of able men and women stand idly by during the workdays. If you’re used to spending your time drinking coffee on Kloof Street and shopping along the Waterfront — or, like me, are pretty much fresh off the boat from midtown Manhattan — this world will definitely come as a culture shock.

And rising like a beacon of hope amid these gloomy environs is the Tsoga Centre. The eco-friendly building was built with sustainability in mind, and it has a very organic feel to it, with brick walls and stone floors.

Tsoga Interior

Even the requisite burglar bars are artistically conceived.

burglar bars

That’s where I landed up last Monday morning, battling the rain, to observe one of ELF’s workshops. The lessons are led by Aisha Mohamed, an instructor with ELF, and she’s assisted by Mandisa Mamputa, an area teacher. Aisha teaches the class in English, and Mandisa steps in with Xhosa translations as necessary.

Aisha Mandisa

Women like Mandisa are especially inspiring. She was drawn to teaching a few years ago, and has lofty goals for her community. “I had a vision of bringing change to the townships. For me, I felt if the foundation of our townships’ education can be good, the matric results will be so much better,” she said. “I’ve seen how the children are in the townships, how the schools are. It’s a dumping place for children. It’s so nice to see when children are doing something, not just sitting there.”

This line of work has more than its share of challenges. It’s scary learning about the incidences of violent crimes, murders, and rapes that are plaguing the townships, and low standards of education are barely a fraction of the problems beleaguering the communities. Many of the crèches, or classrooms, are run out of the teachers’ shacks, and so they are at the mercy of the neighborhood’s afflictions. “One lady told me her spouse locked her out of her school and household, so she went to the neighbors to ask for shelter with the students. Who can concentrate when something like this is happening?” Mandisa asked me.

The workshop I was there for was aimed toward helping improve literacy in students aged 3-6. The morning’s class was well under way, with a group of about 15 women reviewing lessons they’d been taught during previous weeks: matching vocabulary words to pictures and sounds to letters, using a variety of learning aids.



Interesting fact I hadn’t realized: the Xhosa language (perhaps best known in the West for its use of clicking sounds) is written in Latin script:


A lot of the women don’t speak English that well, and add to that language barrier my strong American twang, and I was sure I wouldn’t be able to communicate. But I was lucky enough to chat for a bit with Khanya, a young teacher with a glowing smile and impeccable English. She sounded excited about applying the lessons she was learning with children at Ithemba Daycare Centre in the township, and was optimistic about how much of an impact she was able to have on them. “We’ve learned a lot that we’ve never used before,” she told me.

Niki Kuys, project coordinator at Ubomi Charitable Trust, coordinated bringing the teachers to the program. “It’s a slow journey, two steps forward, one step back. But we are moving forward,” she said. And it’s inspiring to see this group of women, both the teachers and the program leaders alike, working hand in hand to move forward, however slowly.

I couldn’t bring myself to take pictures of anything outside the Tsoga Centre — this isn’t a tourist site, it’s a community struggling to overcome its myriad obstacles, and I couldn’t justify snapping and Instagramming away as though I were sightseeing on Table Mountain. It’s a hard place to be, but women like Hawa, Aisha, and Niki make stepping out of their comfort zone and doing their part to help look almost easy. I left Samora Machel that morning feeling inspired and hopeful that their drops in the ocean will lead to waves of success.


  • Great piece of writing. A lot of people are ignorant to the contrast in the living conditions of the people of South Africa but your piece might help those people understand.

    • sarah

      Thanks so much for your kind words Ntokozo – I’ve been trying to be aware and sensitive to the realities of life here ever since moving here, I’m grateful you liked the piece!